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This Dreary Exile of Our Earthly Home by Eliana Ramage


Eliana Ramage’s “This Dreary Exile of Our Earthly Home” is one of three winners of the
2020 CRAFT Elements Contest: Conflict.


Eliana Ramage’s “This Dreary Exile of Our Earthly Home” takes a circular structure, opening and closing with a young woman and her small family on her first visit to their Cherokee homelands. And it explodes that circular structure, not unlike the stars main character Steph builds her life around: “An old star blows apart. A supernova forms. The collapsed core creates a neutron star. Imagine taking the mass of a mountain and collapsing it into a marble.” Ramage skillfully controls narrative time and setting to take us from Talequah, Oklahoma, to Duke University, to the sacred lands of Kituwah, and beyond, all the way into deep space—the flash forward toward the end of the story lends an expansiveness that both surprises and lays the foundation for a poignant and tender ending. For Steph to build her future world, her first world must break. See Ramage’s author’s note for a discussion of her long journey with Steph, the patience needed to get a story right, the space needed to find the retrospective distance Steph’s story earned. With a clear voice, compelling characters, a strong opening, and specific details, “This Dreary Exile of Our Earthly Home” has layered meaning and themes of family and loss, of how language is inherited, of beginnings and endings that form a circle.  —CRAFT


 

When we got to Kituwah it was dark. The mound-building ceremony was long over, the cars driven in and out of the field were gone, the little road empty and twisting through the mountains.

Mom got out of the car. She walked towards the mound and disappeared into shadow. I picked up a rock and put it in my pocket. Traced the path of wheels leading into the field, back out again.

My mother had prepared us for the mound ceremony, after she’d prepared herself. She’d asked questions of one friend, who’d asked another, and finally one of their mothers, who said that Kituwah was the place where we all came from. Where water spider carried over the first fire in a basket she wove on her back, where we were given the laws about how to be the people. When we spread out into towns across the mountains of the Southeast, we carried embers from that first fire to every town at the start of each year. So we would always be connected, so we’d always feel Kituwah pulling us back home.

It was something my mother had to believe in, had to for her life to make any sense at all. As a young woman she had responded to every disaster—poverty, neglect, abuse—with a move one step closer to her grandmother’s childhood home. By the time I turned ten she’d moved from Dallas to Oklahoma City to Tulsa to Tahlequah. She was an outsider, a thin-blood single mother clinging tight to the worn blue paper of her tribal ID card. Her professed belief in the old stories—earnest or not—was inevitable. When they tore us from the mountains, my mother said, we hauled the embers to Oklahoma in battered tin buckets.

I looked out at all that remained of a village razed by the Rutherford Expedition, at an ancient mound plowed down by farmers after Removal. My little sister slept in the backseat. I found my mother a hundred feet away, on her knees, alone in a holy place once burned to ground.


One day earlier and fifteen minutes down the road, we sat in an elementary school auditorium. It was the first time we’d ever had a Tri-Council meeting, the first time the three bands of Cherokees had been united in our homelands since the Trail of Tears. We were careful not to mingle too much, not to ruin it.

Five Cherokee Nation kids shuffled onto the stage. The girls pulled at their tiny tear dresses, and the only boy fiddled with a black and red finger-woven sash worn tied over basketball shorts and a wifebeater. He tugged the ends around his neck and looked like he was trying to strangle himself. A young-looking teacher yanked it from his grip and ran back off the stage while the children sang a short song about a baby bear.

After our kids ran back to their seats, it was Eastern Band’s turn—this was their school, full of grown-up visitors now. Their girls were in tear dresses, too, but their boys went all out with little bandolier bags and shirts and leggings, finger-woven garters. They sang “Amazing Grace” in Cherokee, the long version.

The announcer said: “We will now move to our first item on the agenda. Are the council members prepared to vote on Resolution 101-A?”

The morning passed slowly. Men—mostly men—talking too close to or far from the microphone about motions to petition the Library of Congress to digitize its Cherokee language texts, to fund a summer biking trip for youth that would trace the path of the Trail of Tears. Someone onstage would motion for a second and they’d get it, then the nays and yeas—mostly yeas—and then onto the next one. Each decision, painstakingly noted and debated and voted into law, felt small to me.

I was grateful for my geo-journal, the thick, heavy sketchbook I bent over as the hours dragged on. It was my get-into-college project, I’d told everyone. To my little sister, Kayla, it was more than that. It was like something that tied me to my life. I collected soil and rock samples, laminated them in the teachers’ lounge at school, labeled them and studied them and indexed them and slipped them into little envelopes I’d glued to each page of the journal. I surrounded them with notes in thick, black ink—classification, observations, whatever I could find on the area’s geological history. Kayla, on a good day, when my obsessions hadn’t exhausted her into unkindness, would lie on my bed and prop a pillow under her arms and sketch an image from memory of almost anywhere I described. My journal was for geological maps of the fourteen counties in our tribal jurisdictional area, a place my sister loved like I did outer space. If I asked her to draw somewhere she’d never been, like Oologah or Cattoosa or Chelsea, she’d find an older boy with a car to drive us out there on a Sunday.

“Put it away,” Mom whispered.

“Why?” I said.

“Shush. Just, away.”

I sighed dramatically, capped my pen and slapped it into the loose seam between pages.

The UKB tribal council tried to put Resolution 7 on the table: Resolution to condemn the closing of the casino of the United Keetoowah Band.

I looked up. “Hoo boy,” Mom said.

We each looked across the stage to where our council members sat. Brett, my teacher, my mother’s boyfriend, didn’t look back toward us

The announcer hesitated. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid that resolution was not submitted for the preapproved agenda.”

I opened my geo-journal, leaned over my classification chart of a zone in Park Hill.

“Steph,” Mom said. I closed it again.

The UKB councilman said the resolution needed to be addressed.

On stage, Beth, another council member, laughed. She reached across Brett for the nearest microphone and flipped a lock of thick black hair over her shoulder. She stood up.

“Jim,” she said, “y’all haven’t got any tribal land in federal trust. You can’t operate a casino as the UKB if you’ve built it on Cherokee Nation land.” She smiled and looked out at the audience. She was Brett’s closest friend, and I didn’t trust her.

Jim sat down, but not before announcing that UKB would be suing Cherokee Nation when we got back to Oklahoma.

Beth muttered something about Eastern Band and how rich they were with the new Harrah’s, though that was hardly relevant. Brett caught her elbow and pulled her back down beside him.

I sat, pen poised over paper, and watched like they were strangers. It was like the hundreds of launch simulations I’d one day practice at NASA, sitting still in a dark metal box in Houston watching flashing screens and buttons indicate electrical failure and then premature shutdown of the first-stage engine and then overheating and explosion of a fuel tank and then loss of pressure. It was the strange exhilaration of watching things fall apart.

The Keetoowah secretary of state banged on a plastic folding table and said that we were all one tribe, one family—and Jim said, “Sure, but some of us are more related than others.”

Beth stood back up and walked across the stage. Brett held his arm in the place she’d been, his hand shaped to her elbow. She told Jim if he wanted to start a racist conversation on blood quantum then he should be clear about his intentions.

Jim said, “Sure, Beth. Let’s talk racism. Tell me, how many years has it been since y’all stripped Freedmen rights?”

The UKB chief yanked the mic from Jim’s hand. “Asquali iganigisdi’i,” he said. He talked like the elders, voice low and nasal, lips barely moving as he spoke. I couldn’t understand him. Onstage, Beth gathered her binder and pens from the table and Brett whispered something in her ear.

Mom looked to me for a translation, even as the UKB chief repeated himself in English. “Uh, lunch,” I said.

She shook her head and gathered up her purse. “Honestly,” she said, “That ceremony tomorrow night can’t come soon enough.” She waved for Brett, but he was already at the exit with Beth. “All’s I’m saying is people could use it.”

“And before that, our trip to Duke,” I said, afraid she’d forgotten.

She moved through the aisle, quickly, not looking back. “Yep,” she said.


It was the quietest hog fry I ever attended. There was supposed to be a smell, grease in the air so heavy you could feel it on your forehead, fresh-cut grass, kids running wild and so many shades of laughter. But they’d made the food the day beforehand and it sat in the school cafeteria, cold in dented aluminum pans. Talking was all whispers within bands. Nobody wanted to be overheard.

Mom sat on Brett’s right, Beth on his left. Mom held his arm with her free hand but mostly kept quiet and ate. I watched the grown-ups. Brett and Beth went way back—their families belonged to the same stomp ground, a sensitive topic for my mother. We only knew our clan from the Nation’s genealogy office—it was whiter families like ours who had that kind of thing written down. But clan isn’t something we could inherit through male ancestors or claim through a paper trail, so ceremony was something separate, sacred, understood only to people like Brett and Beth. They leaned into each other, laughed, told jokes in the kind of old Cherokee that was hard for me. The kind that came from parents instead of textbooks, where the grammar didn’t always follow what we studied and the speaker could never explain why.

Mom took Brett and Beth’s empty plates and piled them over her own. She dropped Brett’s arm and stood there for a minute, three plates, three forks, three knives, three cups in her hands. Brett said something to Beth and she laughed.

In the early days of their relationship, Mom had asked Brett to cover our house in labels, these little lined, bright-pink index cards taped to every surface. Galohisdi’i. Gasgilo. Digohweli. Ganihli. They worked, to a point. Our mother learned almost a hundred words in Cherokee, but they were all nouns in a language of mostly verbs. Still, she asked Brett to speak it to us. If it was frustrating—this wall of language she built around herself—she didn’t let on. She used to say, “Keep going, I like to hear y’all talk.”

Once, when I was ten or eleven, I heard her fight about it with Brett. I lay on the floor of the bedroom I shared with Kayla and pressed my ear to the cold metal grate of the air vent. I heard “sure” and “fine” and “what do you mean” and “what do you mean what do you mean.”

“Just say it’s cause I’m traditional,” Brett said.

The heave and jerk of a drawer on bent runners slammed shut. The snap of air caught under a sheet. She was making the bed.

“Just say that’s why I’m here,” he said. “You owe me that.”

Water shot through pipes in the walls. I imagined her standing at the mirror, tapping lotion onto her cheeks with the tips of her fingers. I imagined her flossing, rinsing, taking her time.

I was almost asleep when I heard her speak again, the thin lines of the grate pressed deep into my cheek. “I’m not with you because you’re traditional,” she said. “It’s not that.”

Brett said something I couldn’t hear. I could almost see my mother, sitting up in bed, the way she would sigh and close her eyes and hold up the palm of her hand. “But it’s not not because you’re traditional. I like what you give my girls.”

“Language practice,” he said.

“Grounding,” she said.

Kayla came in and caught me then, said didn’t I promise I’d stop; didn’t I know nothing good could come of this. I climbed onto the top bunk and she flicked off the light. I fell asleep to the bright green patterns of glow-in-the-dark stars I could reach with my fingertips, to the low hum of my mother’s voice through the grate. I used to think my mother was self-conscious and shallow, that she would stop at nothing to belong. Not realizing—not for a very, very long time—the strength it takes to say what you want. The ambition of wanting a certain life, of demanding it.


At afternoon recess on the first day of Tri-Council, Mom took Kayla to the vending machines. I was bored and tired and felt like the trip to Duke was forever away. I went looking for Brett.

I started with the higher grades’ rooms and worked my way down. The sixth grade had Cherokee language diagrams of photosynthesis on its classroom door, and the fifth had hand-drawn family trees. The school’s third graders had a small nature exhibit, a carefully arranged case of labeled leaves and sticks and rocks and rotting wildflowers. I cupped my palm against a smooth grey creek rock—unextraordinary, like those I’d collected as a child.

I turned a corner, past the third-grade classroom and down the hallway for lower grades. All at once I saw him, through the window of the door to Miss Eagle’s kindergarten classroom. Brett and Beth sat side by side on the teacher’s wooden desk, ankles dangling, knocking lightly against each other. They were reading from her grey binder, her council notes, open in her arms. He pressed his palm to her thigh.

I touched the door handle. It was cold in my hand. His fingers slid higher, and closer, and up past the hem, and I turned away, and I let go.


As a tribal councilor, Brett couldn’t miss a session, so the next day we drove to Duke without him.

It was summer but there were still students on campus, young people everywhere, cutting bare-legged across the grass, shoulders slumped under bright-colored backpacks. A few wore bikinis and swim trunks. They lay on beach towels, read textbooks they held open in the air, blocking the sun from their eyes. A tattoo-sleeved boy sat bare-chested on a bench and wrote in a notebook heavy and thick-papered like my own.

From the car window I saw who I could be. Walking home from the library late at night. Bent over a long black table, hands reaching for beakers and Bunsen burners, protective goggles pressing circles in my skin. Sitting cross-legged in cold, damp grass outside the observatory shed where they stored the five Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes, waiting my turn to see the Cassini gap in Saturn’s rings.

Mom parked the car outside the Richard White Lecture Hall. She hurried around to the trunk. We had twenty minutes till the lecture, and needed to find good seats.

“Kayla,” Mom said. Her voice was quiet, strained. I thought maybe she’d found out about Brett. Or worse—she’d found out I knew and didn’t tell. I unbuckled my seatbelt and joined my mother and sister, standing over an empty trunk.

“Did you pack clothes for you and me last night,” Mom said.

“You didn’t ask me to,” Kayla said.

“I told you…” Mom said. She turned away from us. Paced up and down the length of the car, the muddy hem of her sweatpants dragging across the cement. “I told you to do it,” she said.

“You didn’t,” Kayla said.

“Oh-hoh you better think about what you—”

“Stop!” I shouted. Remembered where we were. Lowered my voice and tapped at my watch. “Mom,” I said. “Your T-shirt is from a charity barbecue. Kayla, people don’t wear belly-shirts to college.”

“I mean, they kinda do,” she said.

“Thank you for driving me,” I said. “I’ll meet you back here at five.”

Mom looked stricken. “If you’re applying here—and I haven’t even said yes to that—then I get to see this place after my four-hour drive.”

She started walking. I chased after her. My hands were shaking. I caught her hand. Begged her, choking on my words. Not here. Please don’t walk inside. Please don’t.

We stood there, watching each other, her hand in mine. When I think of my mother now I think of that image, like an old photograph I carry around. The ivy-draped stone behind her, my sister holding open the heavy oak door. My mother’s brown curls blowing a little in the wind, her dark, plucked eyebrows arched in pain. Little lines ran across the skin beside her eyes. Still, she was more beautiful than I was. She was twenty years older than me, the skin of her hands calloused and worn from the factory, her thin frame shiny and sweaty and small under a bright orange T-shirt (“Vinita Bread Co. Raising Dough for Kids with Cancer”). And she was beautiful.

“We embarrass you,” she said.

“No,” I said, too quickly.

What I didn’t say: That I thought even less of our life than she thought I did. That I hated how she closed her eyes to the shame and squalor I saw all around us. That our house was ugly and my school was underfunded and her boyfriend was unfaithful. That, if Brett left, I’d have no one.

“Come on already!” shouted Kayla from the door. I looked at my watch. I’d have to sit in the back.

“You be ashamed all you want,” Mom said, linking her arm in mine, dragging me towards the door. “But I’m here.”

The door closed behind us. We were cut off from the light and sound of the world outside, thrown into the back of a very full, very dark room. Dr. Carson was already speaking. He paused on stage, cleared his throat, and began speaking again.


Dr. Carson lectured about how scientists detect the birth of a black hole. He talked about how on June 15, just two years before, the Hubble Space Telescope had detected a flash of light. Within seconds, robotic telescopes around the world automatically redirected to face that light. Automated phone calls went out to astronomers in North and South America, alerting them to come into work. I imagined scientists waking up in the middle of the night, throwing coats on over pajamas, slipping into Crocs and flip-flops and running out into the cold. Speeding down dark, quiet streets, skipping steps up a rickety spiral staircase to their observatories, their university offices, their telescopes on a hill. Later they would share data—giant observatories in Chile and Hawai‘i would zero in on the light, would split it into different wavelengths and detect how far it had traveled. They would learn it was a high-energy gamma ray burst. The brightest light ever detected by mankind. It had traveled for 7.5 billion years to appear in our sky for thirty seconds. It was sharing the news, very late and from very far away, that a black hole had been born.

An old star blows apart. A supernova forms. The collapsed core creates a neutron star. Imagine taking the mass of a mountain and collapsing it into a marble. Dr. Carson leaned into the podium. He smiled and rested his chin on his hand. Took a sip of water from the bottle sitting nearby, looked straight into the crowd—straight at me, it felt like—and said, “It’s basically gravity gone bananas.” Laughed.

When Neil DeGrasse Tyson was about my age, Carl Sagan invited him up to Ithaca to spend the day with him. Carl Sagan gave Neil DeGrasse Tyson a book, inscribed it “to a future astronomer.” Carl Sagan drove Neil DeGrasse Tyson to the bus station in the snow, gave Neil DeGrasse Tyson his home phone number, told Neil DeGrasse Tyson he could come sleep on his couch if his bus got snowed in.

I imagined myself meeting Dr. Lars Carson after his talk. Dr. Lars Carson shaking my hand. Dr. Lars Carson offering me admission to Duke on the spot, buying me a computer, asking for help at his lab. I’d drag a stepstool to his chalkboard; I’d erase his calculations and start from the beginning, chasing down numbers and symbols like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. The incredible arrogance of it—I sometimes think about my mother, myself at that age, how hard it must have been to love me.

The part about the mountain crushed into a marble, though—that was the last I understood. Dr. Carson turned on the projector. He flipped between slides, waving a laser at graphs and charts and long lists of numbers. The first few, I thought, compared the density of different stars, but I got stuck trying to imagine how that would be measured and what it would mean. The next six slides whipped past, numbers floating without context against a blinding white background.

Dr. Carson opened the floor for questions. I raised my hand. Mom stood up and waved at the front of the room, pointing down at me.

“Yes,” he said, squinting. “The girl in the back.”

I froze up. Mom grabbed my hand and squeezed. A long-haired grad student in a suit came and held a microphone right under my mouth.

“Stephen Hawking has spoken about the possibility of time travel,” I said, “provided a ship circle a black hole at the speed of light.” I hesitated; my voice had never been so loud.

I took a breath and continued. “And, I mean, Dr. Amos Iron believes that the ship would fall apart. So, which do you think is more likely, for a ship to fly that fast or a ship to stay intact?”

Beautiful,” whispered Mom. She pinched a long, loose hair off the sleeve of my blazer and dropped it on the red carpeted floor.

Dr. Lars Carson gave a soft laugh. “Yeah, I saw that article on space dot com,” he said. He took a swig from the water bottle. “Neither is possible. It’s science fiction.”

Mom harumphed back in her seat. “She didn’t ask which was possible,” she muttered. “She said more likely, which means less impossible.”

The microphone was swept away from me and carried down the aisle.

I was an idiot. I’d believed in time travel, or something like it. When the Voyager crew came across that wormhole in season 1 and contacted a Vulcan from the past I’d thought okay, sure. I’d thought that if it were just possible to survive spaghettification and unimaginable force then yes, we’d find something more than this. To hear Dr. Carson’s laugh, how confident he was, how at ease, it was like being told definitively that there was no Heaven.

I shook in my seat. Mom rubbed my back and Dr. Carson said words that were just sounds to me and I felt like my heart was beating way, way too fast, like any minute I was going to die.

Kayla opened a bag of potato chips, dug her hand in and crackled the packaging. I snapped to the side to face her, my skin hot and itchy, my lungs gasping for air.

Mom beat me to it. “Stop that,” she said.

“Relax, Ma,” Kayla said, which was not a thing we said. Mom lifted a hand like she was set to slap her, then folded it back into her lap.

“Ma’am, please,” said the man in front of us. He was white-haired and scowl-faced and still facing forward.

Mom ignored him, convinced he was speaking to someone else. “Kayla Anne Adair,” she whispered, “you hand me that bag or there will be consequences.”

Kayla fell back in her seat and threw Mom the bag. Mom set it down on the floor.

Ma’am,” he snapped, louder this time. She jerked back. He twisted around and looked at her and her oversize shirt, reading ugly orange, reading small town, reading loud tacky poor dumb. “Ma’am I just need you to control your children,” he said, softer now. “Some of us have been following Dr. Carson’s work for a long time.”

Mom breathed in and out, slowly. The man turned back around. “My daughter,” she said. Stopped. Started again. “My daughter has been following Dr. Carson’s work since she was thirteen fucking years old.

The man stiffened. He didn’t turn around again, didn’t fight back, and that was worse. He let her words hang in the air, let them echo in our ears, so that Kayla and I could hear it over and over again in the silence. So we could see that she was vulgar, and uncivilized, and not the kind of person worth fighting.

Kayla and I faced forward. Dr. Carson paced up and down the stage, waving his hands in the air as he answered a question about the big bang theory. He talked about something called the big bounce theory, and how we’d emerged as the kind of leftovers of a preexisting universe. My mother sat between us, her chest pressing forward and back, tiny sobs caught and silenced in the dark.


My mother knew about Brett and Beth, I’d learn in the weeks that followed. She’d caught them just before Christmas, and she’d forgiven him, and she’d caught them again the morning we left Tri-Council for Duke, and right then she’d put into motion a long, slow unraveling of our family with no clear beginning and no clear end.

They would separate and I would graduate and I would leave, and I wouldn’t see Brett for a very long time. Not till I was forty years old and twenty-three years gone, when NASA and AISES and the NSF sent me on a science education tour across Indian Country. I left my town—my school—for last. “Don’t make me speak the language,” I warned the secretary who booked me, “I can’t remember how.” I stood in the auditorium where I’d put on plays as a child, where I’d been a singing raindrop, a brick-housed pig, part of the holding-pens crowd scene in a ghoulish reenactment of Removal. I talked about space for an hour, answered questions about eating and exercising and peeing in space. After the photos and autographs and hugs, I walked backstage and collapsed into a chair.

Brett followed me, his shoulders slightly stooped. His body was smaller and more tensely fastened than I remembered, like his bones had been twisted tighter to their joints. We watched each other in the mirror, his hand on the back of my chair. I should have sent him Christmas cards, I thought. In the background we heard the banging of metal folding chairs swept out of rows, lifted and stacked against the walls.

“Thank you,” I said, like it was for the event, the bottle of water left on the wooden stool, the math teacher sent to pick me up from the airport.

“Yeah, well,” he said.

He brushed his hand over my head, smoothed my hair down like no one had done in years. His hand felt heavy and warm against my scalp, my skin remembering the feel of it.

“You be good now,” he said, and we laughed, and he left.

If you look back at old interviews, I used to say I was born into geology and grew into astronomy. I’d talk about the homelands, the soil and rock that traced the Trail of Tears and the geological timeline that started millions of years before us. I’d say that by age ten I had a teacher—in interviews Brett was only ever my teacher—who introduced me to the stars. Brett, who’d taken me out onto our roof and put together his telescope and angled it just so and said, “Ni, higowata. Venus uhna geso’i.”

Really, what happened was Star Trek. When Deep Space Nine started airing my mother switched it on, on a kind of hunch. I was ten years old and I loved it. She just wanted something to share with me. DS9 was ours, with popcorn and Klondike bars and the two of us wrapped under the same blanket. Brett moved in with us halfway through the second season, with a telescope and his own hunch about where sci-fi could take me. Every night after dinner, Brett and I would sit on the roof and look up, shivering in the cold while my mother watched us from the window.


Mom walked slowly across the field. She got in the car without a word. Kayla sighed, stretched out across the back seat with her cotton underwear showing, her skirt hiked up in sleep. Mom and I sat in the silence a while, looking at the low mound.

“Sorry I made us miss the ceremony,” I said.

“Well, Duke is far,” she said.

“We could stay here a while,” I said. “I could show you constellations.”

My mother laughed. Shook her head and sighed, like I was the weight that lived on her shoulders, that crushed her sometimes.

“Nah,” she said. “It’s just…” She grabbed my head in her hands and I breathed her in. She kissed me at the top of my head, where she’d parted my hair that morning. Where I touch my fingers to at night before I sleep.

“You’re too old not to see it, Steph. We can’t keep building our world around you,” she said.

I looked through the windshield at the sky. Counted stars and patterns. Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Cassiopeia.

“Steph, do you hear me?”

I felt empty, lost, far from home. I felt like an alien come here from a place I couldn’t name. I felt like I’d never find my way back.

“You have to be a part of us,” said my mother. “To meet us halfway, even.”

I thought about the life she had to offer me. College in Tahlequah, maybe a husband. Teaching science at the high school and being lucky, being grateful I’d had it easier than my mother. Watching my children as they did it all over again.

“Steph,” my mother said.

I leaned my head on her shoulder, breathed in the sky, free on the other side of the windshield. I thought about Mars.

“Steph.

“Steph.

“Steph.”

 


ELIANA RAMAGE is a Cherokee Nation citizen from Nashville, where she works with youth in college access at a local nonprofit. She received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2018, and holds an MA from Bar-Ilan University and a BA from Dartmouth College. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Baltimore Review, the Beloit Fiction Journal, and the anthology All the Women in My Family Sing. She is at work on her first novel.

 

Author’s Note

I was twenty-two years old when I wrote the first draft of this story about a tribal council meeting. By the time I was twenty-three, I knew what I’d written was setting, not plot, so I added an affair. I’d written the story in present tense and its concerns were here and now and what next. The affair was so central to this story that I wrote three stories that followed it, the drive home and the long summer and Steph doing everything she can to keep her family together.

Seven years later, I wrote it again. By then, I’d lived enough ends and beginnings of my own to know there was much to be uncovered in this first of many ends for Steph.

This wasn’t meant to be a story about an affair. To a young Steph, this is a story of the end of the world. Things break and come back together. On her first visit to Cherokee homelands, Steph starts to consider what her tribe once was or could have been. This is secondary to the breaking of her family, the shame she feels at her herself and where she comes from, and the loss of the dream that she’d be instantly recognized away from home as special and wanted.

I rewrote this story only when I knew and understood the breaking and unbreaking of worlds. That the family world and the science world and the tribal world had already broken before Steph showed up on the scene, that they would again, that things break and we put them back together, that it’s just what we do.

In the rewriting of this story I broke more things: I added the trip to Duke, and the missed ceremony, and Steph’s isolation. I switched to a retrospective voice, because I needed an older Steph who could take us somewhere safe in the far-off future where the end of this world was rebuilt into something good. But she holds the voice of her younger self, too, and takes seriously the sadness of that old loss.

In my work with young people, and when I’m writing young characters like Steph, I always try to keep those two voices close to me: the truth of what they feel now, and what none of us can imagine is coming.

 


ELIANA RAMAGE is a Cherokee Nation citizen from Nashville, where she works with youth in college access at a local nonprofit. She received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2018, and holds an MA from Bar-Ilan University and a BA from Dartmouth College. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Baltimore Review, the Beloit Fiction Journal, and the anthology All the Women in My Family Sing. She is at work on her first novel.